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English chintz and imperial Russia

A chance glance upon an entry in an exhibition catalogue from 2004 immediately attracted my interest because it related to samples of wallpaper for the Alexander Palace, the private residence of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, in Tsarskoe Selo. I knew the last Tsarina had chosen ‘English’ chintzes for some of the furnishings of the palatial home they came to love, but I had never found the name of who produced them if these were indeed the ones that were accepted for the final scheme.

The most well-known room in the Alexander Palace is the Tsarina’s legendary ‘Mauve Boudoir’ and whilst this room certainly opens a remarkable window into the Tsarina’s personal sphere, the other rooms used by the family have, of course, their own unique light to shed on their history. Some of the rooms at the Alexander Palace were both English and art nouveau in taste. The latter was an echo of the important Jugendstil movement, which was to bloom with such success under Alexandra’s brother, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig, in the artist colony which he established in Darmstadt, the home of Alexandra’s youth when she was Princess of Hesse.

It seems that the choice of chintz may have been inspired by the British tastes of Alexandra’s mother, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse and perhaps of the English childhood of Windsor, Osborne and Balmoral which Alexandra would have encountered on her visits as a child to her grandmother, Queen Victoria. Alexandra’s biographer, Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden wrote that the bedrooms and nurseries of the Alexander Palace were “simply upholstered in bright chintzes” (Buxhoeveden, The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, Pg 52, 1928). Alexandra had furniture sent from Maples department store to the Alexander Palace, just as her mother, Princess Alice had once furnished the Neues Palais in Darmstadt. The emphasis was sentimental as opposed to sophisticated. The aim was to create a kind of ‘cocoon’ of cosiness, which would be reflected in the fabrics and furnishings which she chose, to help create this private world. An antique taste was not what Alexandra wanted for these rooms; consequently, the bright English chintzes made the imperial palace look instead rather ‘middle-class’ (Greg King, The Last Empress, Pg 117, 1994). Her Mauve Boudoir walls were, by contrast, hung with mauve moire silk. She suggested her ideas to Roman Meltzer, who was responsible for the interior decoration of these new rooms at the palace; chintzes were not used in every room of Alexandra’s however. The so-called Pallisander Room had pale green silk hung on its walls but again, an English carpet.

Samples were sent to the Alexander Palace from the London firm Charles Hindley; one example was for the Imperial Bedroom that Tsarina Alexandra shared with Tsar Nicholas II, another was a sample of chintz for the bedroom of the Grand Duchesses’ at the Palace. The latter sample dates from the late 19th– early 20th century, which could support the fact that by 1901, all four of the couple’s daughters had been born. These samples are from the storerooms of the Alexander Palace and are now part of the State Museum ‘Tsarskoye Selo’. The samples bear their own unique stamp in red ink. The sample for the bedroom was sent by the firm when in occupied 70-71 Welby Street; the second sample which has survived shows a slight change in address, with no. 68 as the number on the stamp (Marilyn Pfeifer Swezey, Nicholas and Alexandra, At Home with the Last Tsar and his Family, Pg 115, 2004). The bedroom of the two younger Grand Duchesses, Maria and Anastasia at the Alexander Palace, had stencilled butterflies and roses above walls painted grey, that of the older Grand Duchesses was pink with stencilled dragonflies. We can be certain, however, that the chintz sent for the Imperial Bedroom matches that of the sample. Tsar Nicholas II gave his eldest daughter, Grand Duchess Olga some furniture for her name day, “in white tones, covered with a pretty chintz” (Ibid, Pg 35). Perhaps this just simply meant that the chintzes were used for the bedrooms and nurseries, as Buxhoeveden remembered.

A notable feature of the Imperial Bedroom was the vast amount of icons and religious images, numbering at least 700; photographs survive in the State Museum, Pavlovsk, showing the Imperial Bedroom, with the same waxed, block chintz of the Hindley sample. It also appears that chintz was thought to be hygienic at the time, as a choice of fabric (Ibid, Pg 30). In the spring of 1895, the Tsar noted in his diary, that he and Alexandra had chosen “materials for the wallpaper… in our rooms at the Alexander Palace” (Ibid, Pg 29).

The pattern used for the Imperial Bedroom was that of pink ribbons and green wreaths in a trellis pattern on a white background, which was copied for the curtains, upholstery and the walls. This lent the room a distinctly Victorian look. Even before their marriage in 1894, the Tsarevich Nicholas’s future sister-in-law, Elizabeth Feodorovna, Grand Duchess Sergei of Russia (Tsarina Alexandra’s elder sister), wrote to him the month after the couple’s engagement, giving him interior design ideas for their rooms after their wedding: “In England you will get delightful ideas, and there are big warehouses where one can see ready rooms. Victoria [Princess Louis of Battenberg, the eldest sister] must know all those places and where to find pretty chintz… in England, you will find heaps of such rooms. Try and see some fine private houses in London...” (Andrei Maylunas & Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, Pg 69, 1997).

Alexandra’s Dressing Room at the Alexander Palace was also patterned with cotton chintz, as surviving photographs demonstrate; the floor of this room also had an English carpet. The Formal Reception Room did not, however, have cotton chintz on its walls, underlining the deliberately establishing divide between the public sphere and the private.

Nos. 68 and 70-71 Welby Street are in the London district of Camberwell. Charles Hindley bought out the firm Miles & Edwards in 1844, who had specialised in fabrics for curtains and furnishings; the Hindley firm continued (as Charles Hindley, C. Hindley & Sons and also Hindley & Wilkinson) as house furnishers into the early 20th century, a “paradigm of the middle-range market” (Laura Microulis, Charles Hindley & Sons, London house furnishers of the nineteenth century: a paradigm of the middle-range market.” Studies in the Decorative Arts, v. 5 (Spring/Summer 1998) p. 69-96). Microulis defines the Hindley clientele as being mostly gentry, based on research analysis of 737 orders placed with the company. Six examples of Hindley fabric exist in the textile collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, one with a stamp for 1870 and an address of 134 Oxford Street. This was the firm’s premises when it took over Miles & Edwards. Another example at the Victoria & Albert Museum is of printed floral chintz. According to information supplied by the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Hindley firm was initially founded on Berners Street, London in 1817; their premier Oxford Street location enabled them to showcase their principle department, known as the ‘Chintz Room’, where sofas and chairs fully upholstered were displayed to a browsing clientele.

I wonder why then, the samples sent to the Tsar were stamped from Welby Street, London and not from Oxford Street. We know, of course, that Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna did not marry until 1894, following the sudden and unexpected death of Tsarevich Nicholas’s father, Tsar Alexander III. Early furniture catalogues of Hindley and Wilkinson exist from the early 20th century are preserved in the Department of Furniture and Woodwork at the Victoria & Albert Museum; the second sample of the chintz for the Grand Duchess’ bedroom is from the 20th century, which suggests that the firm simply changed its name by then; why then though, would only Charles Hindley appear on the stamp of the second sample, if it dated from the same time?

I finally solved the above mystery by the location of a trade catalogue of Hindley and Wilkinson’s, which listed their showrooms as being at 8 Old Bond St & 68, 70 & 71 Welbeck Street, London, with their factory in Upper Charlton Street. The catalogue is dated 1887, which shows that the company seems to have functioned merely under variations of its own name.

An extraordinary fact, therefore, that links the samples of a London house furnishing company to the lost world of imperial Russia.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.